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Martha Minow, Harvard Law School: “Saving the News: Addressing Digital Disruption and the Future of Journalism”

By Yana Mommadova

On December 3rd, Professor Martha Minow from Harvard Law School gave a presentation on her ongoing research on the future of journalism in the age of digital media and online information glut. The presentation was part of the “Information, Algorithms, and Justice” speaker series at the NU Lab.

Professor David Lazer opened the discussion with an important note, highlighting the duty of academia to further the information ecosystem and catalyze important discussions on issues that affect society. Professor Minow began her talk by emphasizing that informed and active citizens who share the same basic sense of reality are an essential component for the existence of a democratic republic. However, in today’s America, this has become very challenging not least due to the privatized media sector. Minow cited disturbing trends that have been underway for several decades in the journalistic profession. Almost half of  local news outlets in the US, along with jobs that they provided, have disappeared. In their stead, we are witnessing an astronomical increase in the number of online news websites and social media outlets that masquerade as news, while harvesting user data and spreading misinformation. 

Professor Minow focused on the controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and noted that, while this piece of legislature had been created in order to spur innovation and creativity, it is now misused by online news and social media companies to avoid responsibility for the content that they disseminate. But the U.S. government does not have to be completely hamstrung by this and similar laws. While media freedom is a crucial part of a functioning democratic society, it is not unconstitutional to regulate journalism and media. The U.S. government, in particular, has always been actively involved in these fields, largely as a source of major funding and research support. The creation of the telegraph, the invention of the Internet and the development of search engines that were the precursors of Google are some of the many technological breakthroughs that would not have been possible without the support from the government. Regulatory oversight from the government is, therefore,  lawful and very much needed.

Professor Minow suggested several avenues that policymakers can pursue in order to intervene in the sphere of journalism and news media without infringing on essential constitutional rights. Online media companies can be categorized as responsible entities and, thus, held accountable for their activities. EU legislature, for instance, is framed in terms of protecting consumers in digital spaces and could inspire similar regulations in the U.S. The U.S. government could also provide support for diverse news outlets through non-profits and watchdogs, thus amplifying marginalized voices and increasing media literacy. Finally, it is not inconceivable to pursue antitrust legislation in relation to online news and social media companies since they already operate like public utilities companies and could be regulated in a similar fashion. While protecting rights and freedoms are important functions, the major role of the government is to protect its citizens, Minow concluded. 

Professor Minow’s presentation was followed by the comments from three discussants who are part of the Northeastern community. Meredith Clark, Associate Professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design noted that in her own research on the intersection of race, media and power, she found that communities of color and Black people, in particular, are often approached as an afterthought in discussions of contemporary media and journalism. Communications policy, in other words, appears to follow a color-blind ideology despite the fact that people of color are selectively targeted by online news sources for aggressive advertising and misinformation. Professor Minow agreed that the government will have to take this important factor into consideration and conduct outreach to minority-owned news outlets and nonprofits that can remedy this situation. Furthermore, policymakers can support local journalism initiatives and provide financial aid to students of color who want to pursue career tracks in journalism. Brooke Foucault Welles, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, made similar observations by noting that children and young adults will also need special protections in online spaces. There is a plethora of research that illustrates the harmful effect of the digital space and social media on young people.  

Finally, James Hackney, Dean and Professor of Law at Northeastern University, asked Minow to elaborate on the role universities can play in this effort to regulate online media companies. Minow suggested that universities have been developing a variety of powerful online tools and techniques to filter and query proper news sources. One way in which the universities can be more proactive is by sharing these tools with the wider public.

During the Q&A section, Minow was asked about the potential dangers of excessive regulatory oversight in the sphere of journalism. Minow agreed that, indeed, it is impossible to avoid some form of dependency and that an active involvement of the government and the public body might inadvertently increase news censorship. However, this can be remedied by plural sources of funding and the heightened role of intermediary institutions that would mediate between the government and the public. Minow concluded by observing that when we have a new technology, such as the Internet, that has been developed so rapidly, it is inevitable that we will encounter many problems. There are simply too many unknowns surrounding the actual impact of this technology and we are still learning about the effects of the Internet and the digital realm. However, in order to have a healthy and functioning republic, we need constitutional protections and proactive legislators who would safeguard essential freedoms and provide adequate protections for all citizens.

Image credit: Martha Minow

For further questions or for more information, please contact Yana Mommadova at mommadova[dot]y[at]northeastern[dot]edu

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